Mayor Brandon Johnson pushes back on critics who say he’s off to a slow start

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Mayor Brandon Johnson lambasted critics who have said he’s off to slow start as mayor, arguing that he’s being held to a “different standard” as a Black man and reiterating his vow to chart a different path than his predecessors.

In an hourlong discussion Tuesday night centered on his first 100 days in office, Johnson said he’s taking a deliberate approach to reframing how work is done on City Hall’s fifth floor and said criticism of that approach is unfair and based at least partly on his race.

“There is a different standard that I’m held to. There is,” Johnson said. “And that’s not something that I’m mad at, but that’s just the reality. I’m not the first person of color, particularly a Black man, that will be held to a different standard than other administrations.”

A progressive who won the April runoff election with the backing of labor unions, Johnson alluded to stories and headlines that mention a “slow” start to his administration. His administration still has commissioner vacancies in key cabinet departments such as public health, planning and development, transportation and housing. But the mayor objected to the use of the word “slow” and told his allies, “I also need you all’s help to call it out.”

“You all read the press. I don’t. But you all look at these dynamics. You all know how there’s been a certain, particular coverage of me, right? Think about it. You know, there’s coverage of me being slow, right?” Johnson said. “These are microaggressions, that if you don’t have the lens of those who have lived through these experiences, you would just miss it. You would, because the same — some of the folks who would call me slow, do you understand what that term means? Particularly (toward) the Black community. So you have these forces that perpetuate a particular view of Blackness.”

Johnson is Chicago’s fourth Black mayor, following his immediate predecessor, Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, who served from 1983 until his death in 1987, and Eugene Sawyer, who became mayor after Washington’s death.

Johnson released a transition plan later than Lightfoot and her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, did following their elections. But Johnson has said his work, including the transition report, has been purposefully more comprehensive in its approach.

His method has both frustrated some eager to see the change he promised but also earned plaudits from others who want to see more deliberation in city government. Johnson’s 100-day agenda from the campaign trail to pass Treatment Not Trauma and Bring Chicago Home — two activist-backed demands to reopen the city’s shuttered mental health clinics and raise a tax on luxury real estate sales, respectively — does have a timeline that will now be longer than he had promised. Still, legislation to place the latter initiative on the March primary ballot via a citywide referendum is in the works.

Johnson’s comments came during the monthly “First Tuesdays” political discussion forum, hosted by journalists Ben Joravsky and Maya Dukmasova and held at The Promontory in Hyde Park.

Lightfoot, the city’s first Black female mayor, frequently chided the press and her political foes for what she said were comments born of prejudice against her identity. At one point during her term, she said “about 99%” of the criticism is tied to her being a Black woman, and she refused to take interviews from white journalists during her two-year anniversary in office.

However, some of Lightfoot’s biggest voices of opposition during her term were also women of color, such as progressives Aldermen Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, and Jeanette Taylor, 20th, as well as Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates.

During Tuesday’s event, Johnson was asked to address beliefs from moderates and those on the political right that he is being influenced by Davis Gates. Johnson previously was a political organizer with CTU, which helped jump-start his once-longshot mayoral bid that culminated in his election as Chicago’s most progressive mayor in generations.

“You think I’m going to suddenly be surprised or get upset because now all of a sudden, oh my goodness, the world is oppositional to a Black man on the left who leads with love?” Johnson responded. “And that the only rationale that can be possible for any of my decisions is that somehow a Black man is being controlled?”

The new mayor also noted his accomplishments in reaching across the aisle and giving committee chair assignments to aldermen who backed his opponent in the mayoral runoff, Paul Vallas, while he also tapped high numbers of Black and Latino aldermen for the leadership positions.

Asked about reopening mental health clinics under the Treatment Not Trauma campaign, Johnson said he intends to pass the legislation but set caveats on its scope.

“How many we can reopen within the first four years — to be perfectly frank with you all — that’s still to be determined. There are real budgetary dynamics that we have to address,” he said.

Johnson also addressed the plight of the 13,500-plus asylum-seekers who have arrived in Chicago from southern border states, mostly after fleeing Central and South America, only to live in squalid conditions at Chicago police stations, O’Hare International Airport and city-run shelters.

The buses of migrants first started coming to Chicago after being directed here by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas a year ago, though they now are also being sent by a variety of nonprofits and other officials. But Johnson noted the buses ramped up after Chicago was chosen to be the site of the 2024 Democratic National Convention.

“If we do not put together the type of infrastructure to create a real welcoming space, not just for the city of Chicago, but for the state of Illinois … if we don’t put that structure together, the type of chaos that will take place would be quite severe, because these individuals and these families are coming,” Johnson said.

On the notion that his recent decision to fire Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner during the pandemic who at times clashed with the CTU, was at all tied to his allegiance to Davis Gates, Johnson gave a fiery rebuttal.

“Perhaps things should go without saying, but as far as this dynamic that a Black man executive can’t make decisions on his own,” Johnson said before lambasting “the same forces” that he said didn’t believe he could balance a budget, unite the City Council or win the election. “Well, let me just offer news for the city of Chicago: The people of Chicago elected me as mayor, and if anybody has a problem with it, come see me in four years.”